Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder

Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor Books
Serialized in Analog Science Fiction & Fact (Dec. 2013 – Apr. 2014)
ISBN: 0765337266
352 pages, hardcover
Published: 25th March 2014

Though marketed as a young adult book in its complete form, I read Karl Schroeder’s new novel Lockstep during its serialization in Analog Magazine over the span of four issues. My reaction to it is colored to begin with through the format. I dislike the practice of serialization of novels (or of excerpts) when they are taking up the space that could go to complete shorter stories. Even for authors I consistently enjoy, a serialization will bother me, an except will just be ignored.

In the case of Schroeder, I’ve found his world-building – his imagination – to be outstanding, thought-provoking, and well structured.  But, how well that stellar idea and exquisitely fashioned framework is translated into a full compelling tale varies. I recall somewhat enjoying Sun of Suns, and being captivated by Queen of Candesce during their runs (both also serialized).

With Lockstep, Schroeder addresses the difficulties in having a ‘hard science’ fictional universe featuring an interstellar civilization. With speed of light limits to travel (NASA plans notwithstanding) Schroeder came up with his ingenious “lockstep system” relying on synchronized prolonged hibernations. The novel opens when Toby, a teenager whose family has fled Earth to stake claims on frontier territory, becomes stranded in orbit of a lifeless planet. Using his family’s technology for cold sleep, he enters into a slumber that he expects will be his last.

Instead, Toby awakens amid a thriving intergalactic empire run on the hibernation technology, far-flung worlds tied together on a schedule of brief active periods separated by long stretches of hibernation allowing travel between distant worlds. The coordination of this political and social endeavor, Toby soon learns, is overseen by the rule of his family. Though he has been in sleep for thousands of years, so too has his family spent most of those years in hibernation. Toby learns his younger brother, now older but quite alive, rules this lockstep system with the firm dictatorial grip of technology monopoly. And for reasons not fully clear to Toby, his reawakening ‘from the dead’ threatens his brother’s position and this empire, and Toby’s brother wants Toby dead.

The setup and explanation of all this in the first chapter is brilliant. A recent review of the novel on io9.com by Michael Ann Dobbs even states the worldbuilding will make a reader giddy. It didn’t quite do that for me, but I’m not a particular champion of ‘hard’ sci-fi. But the general point I can agree with. The trouble comes in going beyond the setup and this worldbuilding. The entire middle of the book seems particularly drawn out – and admittedly a serialization made this worse for me. By the time the concluding sections arrive everything seems to fall together a bit too easily, leaving the majority of the novel after this brilliant idea and introduction of the Lockstep to simply feel underwhelming, and in well, juvenile.

And I use that word intentionally of course, and not to be disparaging. Though I felt it a rather straight-forward and predictable sort of space adventure in terms of story for the pages of Analog, considering it anew in the light of “young adult” marketing, that makes a lot of sense. Dobbs’ comparisons of Lockstep‘s tone to some of the young adult works of Heinlein are apt. There isn’t much deep here, but for a young adult with a nerdy science or technological leaning, this novel could be perfect. Despite good qualities, it made a belabored serial and just wasn’t a novel for me.

Three Stars out of Five

Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club, by Ben Bova

Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club,
by Ben Bova
Publisher: Baen Books
368 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

The genre denoted SF is most commonly called science fiction, but some prefer speculative fiction instead. Either way, a precise definition of what constitutes science fiction can be as elusive as defining what constitutes life. As a scientist, I’ve always wanted more fiction that simply took place in the world of science, with scientist characters and problems – nothing far-reaching in speculation, nothing out-of-this world. Not even focused on astronomical issues per se, as a lot of sci fi is, causing some, like Margaret Atwood, to eschew the genre term merely due to this connotation of spaceships and intergalactic exploits.

Mars Inc. comes close to being a science fiction book about getting the process of science done; it may be more accurate to say that Bova’s new novel is about technology more than science. Sadly, the cover as I see it here (the electronic edition has no cover) brings to mind far more clichéd science fiction space-faring than is in this novel. Instead the action is all on Earth. it is about getting to space again, about finding a way to move human enterprise and human exploration in the universe forward in a society that is increasingly hostile (at least politically) to doing this through public means, ie the government.

Bova’s protagonist is a wealthy businessman with a soft spot and dream for increased space exploration, and he is committed to getting private sources (other rich men) to get it done, rather than the ‘damned government.’ This set up is intriguing and Bova uses it to explore all the difficulties his character has in getting this dream to come to fruition amid hostile and greedy business that is not out for the benefit of humanity. Despite the character’s hatred of government and belief that private capital can do better, in the end success is more due to his own tenaciousness against adversity and one gets the sense that if he were more open about governmental public works, and a little more familiar with that system as he is for private enterprise, he could have fought just as hard in that sector and gotten similar results.

The novel therefore is not about the triumph of private income over public works, but rather the triumph of this particular character in using his own unique position and talents to get a job done and realize his dreams of scientific/technological possibilities – getting human beings to Mars. In these general respects Bova succeeds really well, and the novel’s plot is both captivating and believable.

However, on the negative side, the novel suffers from being a bit too simplistic in the non-scientific or business aspects of the plot, it fits assuredly into the ‘genre’ mold. The character’s are primarily all male, one major female character is a secretary, the other is a scientist. Both are primarily used as predictable love interests, and in the case of the scientist, that is pretty much her only role. The novel doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is however, and what Bova is setting out to do here, he manages to accomplish well.

If you like SF heavy on the process of getting science and technology to move forward or have an interest in the space program then this is assuredly a novel you’d want to check out. If you are looking for action on an alien world or something more complex than simple genre fare that emphasizes technology over other matters social, then it’s best to look elsewhere.

Three Stars out of Five